The Winterthur collection is generally recognized as the premier collection of American decorative arts in the world. Winterthur founder, Henry Francis du Pont was a great collector of Americana. Throughout his life du Pont amassed an extraordinary collection of American furniture and decorative arts, more specifically, objects used and made in America between 1630 and 1860.
On this day in history, January 7, 1789, George Washington was elected the first president of the United States of America. The Winterthur collection includes many pieces formerly owned by Washington.
In May 1785, a 302-piece dinner, tea, and breakfast service was brought to New York on the Empress of China. The Empress of China represented major growth as the first American ship to conduct trade directly with China. The service set was not custom ordered by Washington but purchased from the New York firm, Constable, Rucker, & Co in July 1786 for $150.00, a reduction from the original price. Washington used the service in the presidential mansions in New York and Philadelphia and Mount Vernon.
The service features a fashionable blue and white border pattern of whimsical flowers, butterflies, and other Chinese motifs. The border was named after Thomas Fitzhugh, director of the Honourable East India Company, who had originally ordered a service with a similar border in 1780; hence, the style’s name became synonymous with his. In addition to the blue and white border, each piece of the Washington service features an emblem showing Fame personified as a winged female blowing a trumpet. In her hand she holds the badge of the Society of the Cincinnati, a bald eagle with a shield on its chest.
The Society of the Cincinnati is the nation’s oldest patriotic organization, founded in 1783 by officers of the Continental Army and their French counterparts who served together in the American Revolution. It is named after Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, a Roman hero who served Rome in its time of need and then relinquished power back to the elected Roman Senate. Washington was often compared to a modern day Cincinnatus and served as the first president of the Society until his death in 1799.
How the pieces came to be owned by Henry Francis du Pont is an interesting tale passed down through generations. Upon Washington’s death, the service was passed on by Martha Washington to her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis and used at Arlington House. The American government confiscated Arlington House along with the service during the Civil War. Following the Civil War, President William McKinley released the possessions to Mary Custis Lee, the daughter of Mary Anna Randolph Custis and Robert E. Lee. In 1928, du Pont purchased sixty pieces from the descendents of Mary Custis Lee.
Many pieces from the service can be viewed at the Society of the Cincinnati museum, Mount Vernon, and in the Winterthur collection, where they are on display in China Hall on the 5th floor of the museum. The Winterthur collection houses more pieces of the George Washington Society of the Cincinnati porcelain than Mount Vernon!
Post by Hilary Seitz, Marketing & Communications Department, Winterthur